The Case for Reading Books that Offend You

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Aram Mrjoian

Staff Writer

Aram Mrjoian is a contributor at Book Riot and the Chicago Review of Books. His reviews and essays have also appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Adroit Journal blog, and The Awesome Mitten. His stories are published or forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Limestone, The Great Lakes Book Project, and others. He is currently working toward his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University, where he is a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Twitter: @AMrjoian575

Recent news that several students at Duke University chose to abstain from reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, part of the school’s summer reading program, comes in the wake of a slew of lengthy think-pieces attempting to analyze Millennial views on offensive language. The students’ stance is relatively straightforward – Fun Home, specifically the images, contradicts their religious beliefs.

The freshman who spearheaded this campaign via Facebook, Brian Grasso, has since written a relatively cogent explanation of his reasoning which appeared in the Washington Post, though I personally find his definition of pornography misguided (for more on that see this Daily Beast article).

Here’s the thing though. Is reading a book, as well as looking at imagery, that offends you, or goes against your belief system, such a bad thing? In his op-ed, Grasso argues, “without genuine diversity, intellectual dialogue and growth are stifled.” To me it would seem that, especially in the context of higher education, refusing to intake any cultural artifact that doesn’t entirely mesh with your beliefs would bring that dialogue entirely to a standstill.

While universities are often lauded as liberal arenas today, that doesn’t mean that conservative students aren’t kept in mind. They simply may no longer be the focal point. Assigning a graphic novel such as Fun Home isn’t designed to push an agenda against Christianity nor conservatism. It’s a decision to highlight diverse literary voices.

Moreover, keep in mind that this is an academic setting. Duke is one of the most selective universities in the country, and thereby should assign students challenging texts free of censorship with the confidence that they can handle the conflict between their coursework and personal beliefs. For some, reading and viewing media outside of their belief system may even strengthen it.

Grasso is clearly an intelligent kid– the respectful and mature tone in which he poses his argument is evidence of that– but there is a flaw in conflating art with pornography, and also a sense of youthful naivete in running away from your very first college assignment. It’s like throwing in the towel before the match begins.

Forgive the bombastic bro-ness of this reference, but in David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water,” he argues that higher education is not designed to teach students how to think, but rather to give them the tools to decide how they think on their own. He notes that we all have “default settings,” or routine ways of thinking and living. Certainly not all the time, but often enough, the act of being offended is a default setting. It is a reaction to a lifetime of beliefs, whether religious, political, cultural or otherwise.

I will posit that when we can step back from our immediate feeling of offense, and examine the reasons why we are offended to begin with, it is an opportunity to learn more not only about our beliefs, but also about the beliefs of others. This is certainly not always a comfortable experience, and a lot of the time it only takes milliseconds to understand why we’re pissed off because another person’s viewpoint is the polar opposite of our own. But we can learn in these moments.

In Duke’s The Chronicle, Grasso is quoted saying, “Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind…It was like Duke didn’t know we existed, which surprises me.”

While I understand where he’s coming from, the reality is Duke is well aware he exists, but is choosing to bring other perspectives into the discussion. There has never been a dearth of praised literature written by Christian white men in the educational system, whether public or private. It’s not that these books no longer deserve to be taught (they’ve been canonized for good reason), but it’s well overdue that the table is not full of people with one perspective. As one of the most prestigious universities in the country, it’s Duke’s job to understand the diversity of their student body and provide resources equally.

The Duke story aside, reading books that one finds offensive can be an incredible exercise in intellect and tolerance. Whereas students on a college campus can create an open discussion about their sensibilities with relatively few consequences, such confrontations with morals are not always pushed aside so easily outside of this setting. Books, movies, music, paintings, etc., are mediums not only for continuing education, but also a lifelong means of creating a safe forum to learn about the beliefs of others. Personally, the longer I am removed from a university setting, the more I realize that most subjects can’t be innocuously approached and discussed with the same sense of freedom found in a lecture hall.

In that sense, reading offensive books is an opportunity to find out what you truly believe in, what you’re willing to fight for, what you’re willing to lose. If an author’s words or an illustrator’s sketches are enough to make you question your belief system, then you learn something about yourself in the process.

Backtracking to the idea of intellectual dialogue being stifled – there’s no good way to open an honest discourse if both sides don’t respect one another enough to truly learn the other side of things. From an academic standpoint, ignorance is more often than not the biggest enemy in a debate, and from a social and cultural standpoint ignorance is undoubtedly one of the biggest catalysts of fear, hate, and intolerance. Fearing a book so much as to not read it will only make a person ignorant of its contents.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the act of reading offensive books is something that applies to everyone equally. Somehow this static misconception endures that the push for diversity is an expectation specifically pushed on conservatives–often white men– especially when it comes to literature. Yet, everyone is offended by something (most of us by many things), and we can all push ourselves to read, view, and listen to media that make us uncomfortable, offended, angry, and confused. Reading books outside of our moral and ethical codes can be universal. This act challenges us to look past our preconceptions and embrace humanity more holistically.